About the French Atlantic Coast
France's western coast unites the indomitable Atlantic with a peaceful wilderness of pine forests and lush marshlands. The regional climate, mild enough to see blooms in February, enjoys the highest number of sunshine hours outside of Provence. Noted for its Atlantic beaches, today the coast and islands are a paradise for family outdoor holidays with many lively resorts offering surfing, windsurfing and sailing. Exploring the region won’t disappoint with its medieval and Renaissance ruins, Romanesque and Gothic churches, vineyards, and charming inns serving splendid regional cuisine.
The Atlantic region consists of sandy beaches, framed by rocky cliffs in the north, salty fishing ports, and several offshore islands. We start at the city of Nantes because of its important links to that ocean and the colonial expeditions that set out from here. Nantes is France’s sixth largest city and an important university town, with good museums, parks and lots of places to eat and drink. It was here that Henri IV signed the Edict of Nantes.
Heading south along the coast the Vendée stretches for 250 km of which 140 km are lovely sandy beaches. A network of cycle-trails in the Vendée was started in 1995 and today stretches for over 100 km. The cycle network allows easy access to explore all the hidden corners of the nature sites along the coast (dunes, woodlands and marshes), in the bocage country and the Poitevin Marshes. The whole region is dissected by waterways and teeming with wildlife and the soft hills of the Vendée look down on little farms and vineyards. Châteaux, abbeys and churches tell the stories of the region’s historical importance.
To the south of Vendée lies Charente with its two departments, Charente and Charente-Maritime. Known for their production of an increasingly wide range of local wines and vine wines, white, red and rosé, they also produce wines intended for the production of cognac and pineau des Charentes. The Charentais vineyard of 80,000 hectares is the second largest french vineyard after Bordeaux.
Once known as the French Geneva, La Rochelle is a historic port and ancient sailors' city which grows in popularity in July when the Festival International du Film de La Rochelle begins each summer. La Rochelle became the principal port between France and its colony of Canada. It is the cultural and administrative center of the Charente-Maritime department. Tours leave from the Vieux-Port of La Rochelle to the lovely, preserved lle de Ré. Ile de Ré has 69km (43 miles) of sandy beaches. It is an island of nature preserves with bike and hiking paths, and there are plenty of cafés and restaurants on the island.
Head south and inland for some cognac in Cognac, as harvest time begins around mid-October. Not far away are the inland cities of Poitiers and Angoulême. Reach the old town of Angoulême on a day visit by train from Cognac, situated on a hilltop between the Charente and Aguienne rivers. This center of French comic-strip production brings you the favorite Tintin, Astérix, and Lucky Luke. Poitiers, the ancient capital of Poitou in the northern part of Aquitaine, is filled with history. Poitiers was the chief city of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had her marriage to pious Louis VII annulled so she could wed England's Henry II.
On the Garonne River, the port of Bordeaux and the capital of Aquitaine, is one of the world's most important wine-producing areas. The whole vineyard of Bordeaux encompasses over more than 100,000 hectares. Royan sits on the Gironde estuary with 12 km of sandy beaches and a splendid harbour. From Royan, the Médoc area with its prestigious appellations and the Côtes de Blaye and Côtes de Bourg appellations, are within one hour’s drive. A bit further away is Saint-Emilion, a visit to its town and famous vineyard is highly recommended. Wine enthusiasts truly enjoy this region not only for the magnificent scenery.
Dordogne remains one of the most popular regions in the Aquitaine of France with its particularly mild climate, beautiful rolling countryside and endless areas of interest. The Dordogne is the former province of the Périgord and is often referred to by this, its historic name.
Oysters, mussels and other seafood reign supreme on the Atlantic Coast. Many regional dishes and sauces are often prepared with Pineau, Cognac or white wine. Dairy produce and goats' cheeses from Vendée, and melons from Charente are always regional favorites.
The Christmas Market in Bordeaux includes 125 decorated country cottages. The Bordeaux Wine Festival is a popular event every July.
HOW TO GET THERE
Discount airline Flybe.com flies to Bordeaux and La Rochelle airports from various UK airports. Openjet.com flies to Bordeaux from the Amsterdam, the East Midlands and Manchester. British Airways flies from London Gatwick to Bordeaux. Ryanair flies to Bergerac airport in the Dordogne, Poitiers, Limoge and Biarritz from Stansted.
Bordeaux is easily reached by car. From Paris, follow A10 south through the cities of Orléans, Tours, and Poitiers into Bordeaux (trip time: about 5 hr).